Christopher P. Borick and Barry G. Rabe
The factors that determine individual perceptions of climate change have been a focus of social science research for many years. An array of studies have found that individual-level characteristics, such as partisan affiliation, ideological beliefs, educational attainment, and race, affect one’s views on the existence of global warming, as well as the levels of concern regarding this matter. But in addition to the individual-level attributes that have been shown to affect perceptions of climate change, a growing body of literature has found that individual experiences with weather can shape a variety of views and beliefs that individuals maintain regarding climate change. These studies indicate that direct experiences with extreme weather events and abnormal seasonal temperature and precipitation levels can affect the likelihood that an individual will perceive global warming to be occurring, and in some cases their policy preferences for addressing the problem. The emerging literature on this relationship indicates that individuals are more likely to express skepticism regarding the existence of global warming when experiencing below average temperatures or above average snowfall in the period preceding an interview on their views. Conversely, higher temperatures and various extreme weather events can elevate acceptance of global warming’s existence.
A number of studies also find that individuals are more likely to report weather conditions such as drought and extreme heat affected their acceptance of global warming when such conditions were occurring in their region. For example, the severe drought that has encompassed much of the western United States between 2005 and 2016 has increasingly been cited by residents of the region as the primary reason for their belief that climate change is occurring. What remains unclear at this point is whether the weather conditions are actually changing opinions regarding climate change or if the preexisting opinions are causing individuals to see the weather events in a manner consistent with those opinions.
Notably, the relationship between weather experiences and beliefs regarding climate change appear to be multidirectional in nature. Numerous studies have found that not only do weather experiences shape the views of individuals regarding global warming, but also individuals’ views on the existence of global warming can affect their perceptions of the weather that they have experienced. In particular, recent research has shown that individuals who are skeptical about the existence of global warming are less likely to report the weather recorded in their area accurately than individuals who believe global warming is happening.
Emily K. Vraga
Political participation on the issue of climate change can encompass many different forms of individual and collective actions designed to affect governmental policies. At the most basic level, issue-specific political participation occurs when individuals directly attempt to influence governmental actors or policies on climate change—most notably by voting, but also through donating money and communicating with public officials. These types of participation tend to be relatively rare, limited to a small subset of deeply committed individuals. In contrast, personal action on climate change is more widely dispersed, especially if one includes impact-oriented actions (e.g., actions that influence the environment but are primarily undertaken for other reasons, like convenience or saving money) rather than purely intention-based actions, which occur when individuals adopt behaviors with the goal of addressing climate change. Additionally, opportunities to engage in expressive participation, largely online, create new spaces for individuals to build networks to engage in political action, as well as potentially to reach unengaged groups that are less likely to seek out information on the issue.
A number of forces can contribute to whether an individual chooses to participate on the issue of climate change. Individual characteristics, like perceptions of impersonal and personal risks associated with climate change, knowledge of the issues, and environmental values all tend to produce people more likely to participate—especially when these attitudes become part of an individual’s identity as an opinion leader or activist. As a global issue, social norms play a particularly powerful role; when individuals believe others support and are likely to take action themselves, it tends to foster a sense of efficacy that such behaviors will be effective in producing change. Individual choices about media sources also intersect with media coverage and framing of the issue to influence perceptions of the issue and likelihood of taking action. Such media framing can exacerbate or mitigate the heightened political polarization on the issue of climate change that has erected barriers to effective political action in many democratic societies in recent years, most notably in the United States. New forms of political participation may create opportunities to encourage more participation on the issue of climate change, but they also raise ethical questions about inequality and participatory divides that privilege some groups over others.
Climate change specifically and the environment more generally are becoming increasingly central features in much of contemporary persuasive messages. From World Wildlife Fund public service announcements showing the Earth as a melting scoop of ice cream to advertisements for environmentally friendly hybrid cars set against backdrops of lush, green fields, climate change and the environment are closely linked to strategic communication and consumer behavior. This growing focus on the connection between climate change and consumption represents a wide and varied field of study, underscoring the ways in which the two can at once be symbiotic and yet also antagonistic.
Meaningful academic attention to environmental cues in advertising can be thought of as occurring in two waves. In the first wave, peaking in the 1990s, research was concerned primarily with content analyses of advertising containing environmental appeals. Questions about deceptive environmental claims, often referred to as greenwashing, were a primary concern during this phase. Climate change specifically was not a central element, and instead, issues of environmental preservation and conservation dominated. In the second wave, which emerged in the late 2000s and continues unabated, researchers have broadened their focus to examine not only how the environment was depicted in advertising messages but also how audiences understood them. Attention was paid to message factors, like framing, source cues, and visual depictions, as well as individual-level factors, such as environmental concern, political ideology and regulatory focus.
While concerns about greenwashing and deceptive advertising continue to plague green advertising, a collection of new critiques has emerged, including questions about the implications of emphasizing consumer behavior as a source of climate change mitigation, of relying on nature as a commodity to be sold and used, and of engaging individuals as consumers rather than as citizens in attempts to effect environmental change.
Nathaniel Geiger, Brianna Middlewood, and Janet Swim
Given the severity of the threat posed by climate change, why is large-scale societal action to decarbonize our energy systems not more widespread? The present article examines four categories of psychological barriers to accurate risk perceptions and engagement with this topic by the public. First, psychological barriers such as (a) not personally experiencing the threat, (b) not hearing people talk about climate change, (c) being limited by cultural narratives, and (d) not understanding how climate change works can lead to misperception of the threat posed by climate change. Second, individuals may lack knowledge or perceived ability about how to address the threat. Third, social barriers such as social norms not to act and socio-structural barriers can discourage climate change engagement. Finally, worldviews such as neoliberal ideology and conspiratorial worldviews can conflict with climate change engagement.
Jaime Gilden and Ellen Peters
It is a widely accepted scientific fact that our climate is changing and that this change is caused by human activity. Despite the scientific consensus, many individuals in the United States fail to grasp the extent of the consensus and continue to deny both the existence and cause of climate change; the proportion of the population holding these beliefs has been stable in recent history. Most of the American public also believe they know a lot about climate change although knowledge tests do not always reflect their positive perceptions. There are two frequent hypotheses about public knowledge and climate change beliefs: (a) providing the public with more climate science information, thus making them more knowledgeable, will bring the beliefs of the public closer to those of climate scientists and (b) individuals with greater cognitive ability (e.g., scientific literacy or numeracy) will have climate change beliefs more like those of experts. However, data do not always support this proposed link between knowledge, ability, and beliefs. A better predictor of beliefs in the United States is political identity. For example, compared to liberals, conservatives consistently perceive less risk from climate change and, perhaps as a result, are less likely to hold scientifically accurate climate change beliefs, regardless of their cognitive abilities. And greater knowledge and ability, rather than being related to more accurate climate change beliefs, tend to relate to increased polarization across political identities, such that the difference in beliefs between conservatives and liberals with high cognitive ability is greater than the difference in beliefs between conservatives and liberals with low cognitive ability.
People can take extraordinary measures to protect that which they view as sacred. They may refuse financial gain, engage in bloody, inter-generational conflicts, mount hunger strikes and even sacrifice their lives. These behaviors have led researchers to propose that religious values shape our identities and give purpose to our lives in a way that secular incentives cannot. However, despite the fact that many cultural and religious frameworks already emphasize sacred aspects of our natural world, applying all of that motivating power of “the sacred” to environmental protectionism seems to be less straightforward.
Sacred elements in nature do lead people to become committed to environmental causes, particularly when religious identities emphasize conceptualization of humans as caretakers of this planet. In other cases, however, it is precisely the sacred aspect of nature which precludes environmental action and leads to the denial of climate change. This denial can take many forms, from an outright refusal of the premise of climate change to a divine confirmation of eschatological beliefs.
A resolution might require rethinking the framework that religion provides in shaping human-environment interactions. Functionalist perspectives emphasize religion’s ability to help people cope with loss—of life, property and health, which will become more frequent as storms intensify and weather patterns become more unpredictable. It is uncertain whether religious identity can facilitate the acceptance of anthropogenic climate change, but perhaps it can aid with how people adapt to its inevitable effects.
Research Methods for Assessing Journalistic Decisions, Advocacy Strategies, and Communication Practices Related to Climate Change
Research in the field of journalistic decisions, advocacy strategies, and communication practices is very heterogeneous, comprising diverse groups of actors and research questions. Not surprisingly, various methods have been applied to assess actors’ motives, strategies, intentions, and communication behaviors. This article provides an overview of the most common methods applied—i.e., qualitative and quantitative approaches to textual analyses, interviewing techniques, observational and experimental research. After discussing the major strengths and weaknesses of each method, an outlook on future research is given. One challenge of the future study of climate change communication will be to account for its dynamics, with various actors reacting to one another in their public communication. To better approximate such dynamics in the future, more longitudinal research will be needed.
Research Methods for Assessing Online Climate Change Communication, Social Media Discussion, and Behavior
Leona Yi-Fan Su, Heather Akin, and Dominique Brossard
In recent years, increased Internet access and new communication technologies have led to the development of online methods for gathering public opinion and behavioral data related to controversial issues like climate change. To help climate-change researchers better adapt to the new era of online-based research, a review of, and methodological applications for, prevailing Internet-based research methods are provided here. Online surveys have become more common in the last decade for several reasons, including their relatively low administration cost, the pervasiveness of Internet communication, and declining response rates associated with traditional survey methods. Experiments embedded within online surveys have also become a useful tool for examining the extent to which online communications influence publics’ attitudes and behaviors. Other research methods that have gained growing attention from scholars are content analyses of online communication using big data approaches. By mining the seemingly infinite amount of user-generated content extracted from different social media sites, researchers are able to analyze issue awareness, responses to instant news, and emerging sentiments. This article provides a detailed overview of these Internet-based research methods, including their potential advantages and pitfalls, their applications in the science-communication and climate-change research fields, as well as suggestions for future research.
Scientists’ Views about Public Engagement and Science Communication in the Context of Climate Change
John Besley and Anthony Dudo
Scientists who study issues such as climate change are often called on by both their colleagues and broader society to share what they know and why it matters. Many are willing to do so—and do it well—but others are either unwilling or may communicate without clear goals or in ways that may fail to achieve their goals. There are several central topics involved in the study of scientists as communicators. First, it is important to understand the evolving arguments behind why scientists are being called on to get involved in public engagement about contentious issues such as climate change. Second, it is also useful to consider the factors that social science suggests actually lead scientists to communicate about scientific issues. Last, it is important to consider what scientists are trying to achieve through their communication activities, and to consider to what extent we have evidence about whether scientists are achieving their desired goals.
Daniel P. Aldrich, Courtney Page, and Christopher J. Paul
Anthropogenic climate change increasingly disrupts livelihoods, floods coastal urban cities and island nations, and exacerbates extreme weather events. There is near-universal consensus among scientists that in order to reverse or at least mitigate climate disruptions, limits must be imposed on anthropogenic sources of climate-forcing emissions and adaptation to changing global conditions will be necessary. Yet adaptation to current and future climate change at the individual, community, and national levels vary widely from merely coping, to engaging in adaptive change, to transformative shifts. Some of those affected simply cope with lower crop yields, flooded streets, and higher cooling bills. Others incrementally adapt to new environmental conditions, for example, by raising seawalls or shifting from one crop to another better suited for a hotter environment. The highest—and perhaps least likely—type of change involves transformation, radically altering practices with an eye toward the future. Transformative adaptation may involve a livelihood change or permanent migration; it might require shuttering whole industries and rethinking industrial policy at the national level. Entire island nations such as Fiji, for example, are considering relocating from vulnerable locations to areas better suited to rising sea levels.
A great deal of research has shown how social capital (the bonding, bridging, and linking connections to others) provides information on trustworthiness, facilitates collective action, and connects us to external resources during disasters and crises. We know far less about the relationship between social capital and adaptation behaviors in terms of the choices that people make to accommodate changing environmental conditions. A number of unanswered but critical questions remain: How precisely does social capital function in climate change adaptation? To what degree does strong bonding social capital substitute for successful adaptation behaviors for individuals or groups? Which combinations of social factors make coping, adapting, and transforming most likely? How can social capital help migrating populations maintain cultural identity under stress? How can local networks be integrated into higher-level policy interventions to improve adaptation? Which political and social networks contribute to transformative responses to climate change at local, regional, and international levels? This article serves as a comprehensive literature review, overview of empirical findings to date, and a research agenda for the future.